Roland's newest USB 2.0 audio interface is ambitiously named the OCTA-CAPTURE Hi-Speed USB Audio Capture Interface, and that's precisely what it does: capture audio from up to eight analog sources -- more specifically, from eight microphones -- at once. There's a real market for a small interface that can handle more than two or four inputs, capable of recording a small band or a fancy drum kit in one pass at good quality without breaking the bank... and Roland offers some sweet extras to ease the recording process.
The OCTA-CAPTURE is a 1U rackmountable tabletop interface that offers ten channels of audio input and output: eight analog plus stereo S/PDIF digital (and MIDI). The eight analog inputs, four on the front panel and four on the rear, are all XLR/TRS balanced combination jacks, and the first two can be switched to handle Hi-Z inputs like guitars.
The Main Out level control on the front panel is right next to the 1/4" headphone output, and controls the level of both; a nearby switch mutes or unmutes the Main Outs while leaving signal going to the headphones. The eight analog outputs on the rear panel are all 1/4" TRS, and the S/PDIF ports are coaxial RCA on the rear panel, as are the USB and power connections. The OCTA-CAPTURE can't be bus-powered; it has a line-lump external power supply.
The front panel relies heavily on digital technology to provide maximum power with minimum controls; this helps keep costs down while leaving the interface very clean and easy to navigate. In fact, the only analog controls on the entire box are the headphone volume knob and the Main Output mute switch, and the only analog circuits under the hood are the mic preamp gain stages for each of the inputs, and even those are digitally controlled. Everything else in the inputs -- phase flip, 100 Hz lowcut filter, and input compression -- is digital, as are the interface's built-in mixers, DSP effects engines, and routing matrix.
The end result is an inocuous-looking little box that has a pretty hefty amount of power under the hood, easily accessible and able to handle a wide variety of recording chores.
Basic setup for the OCTA-CAPTURE involves installing drivers and the dedicated control panel application from the included DVD, setting up MIDI, and telling your DAW which ins and outs to use. From there on, it's smooth sailing; I encountered no weirdnesses in operation on either my test Mac or my Windows system.
The front panel controls on the interface are divided into three areas. First, there's the Pre-Amp area, which provides digital control for each of the input channels. You scroll to the input you want, dial in the input gain (Sensitivity in Rolandspeak), and use the lit buttons to select phantom power and/or compression for that input.
Second is the large backlit LCD that provides graphic information about the unit's status and lets you program effects and the like, with data input performed on a turn/click encoder and a button that selects whether the LCD shows the meter bridges for Inputs, Outputs, or DAW channels (the Mains have a dedicated part of the display on all three pages), or gives you a menu for system setup.
Finally there's the Direct Mixer knob and button where you control the low-latency monitor mixes, signals to the DAW, etc..
Ins, outs, and mixes
The input channels on the OCTA-CAPTURE give you everything you need to get good signals into your DAW. They're designed for clean, clear, non-"vibey" sound, and they deliver in spades -- you can always add fancy preamps later and run their line outputs into the interface. A nifty feature called Auto Sens allows you to quickly set input gains without a lot of tweaking; just select which channels you'd like to set that way (any or all at once), press a button, and have the band play at its loudest. Auto Sens can instantly grab maximum levels or listen for peak output during a period from 30 seconds to 5 minutes, setting each input accordingly. In practice, this feature worked very well; if I had a player with unsteady dynamics (me, for instance), having the interface listen for 1 minute almost always got me right where I needed to be.
The compressors (one per input) are very handy for taming signals with too much dynamic range; again, I wouldn't call them "character" compressors, they work relatively unobtrusively unless you really clobber them. You have control over attack and release, threshold, ratio (up to infinity, making the compressor a hard limiter), a gate to kill low-level signals, and stereo linking of odd/even channel pairs.
Once signals are inside the interface, they can be routed to a set of four Direct Mixers, labeled A through D. Each Direct Mixer has an Input Mixer and Output Mixer with level, pan, stereo link, mute, and solo capability, and a Patchbay dropdown lets you assign the output of each Direct Mixer to any pair of the stereo outputs on the rear panel (the headphone jack always doubles up the Main Outs, which are 1 and 2).
Direct Mixer A also has send and return controls for a simple but smooth-sounding built-in reverb, good for confidence monitoring at low latency without your DAW. The reverb is programmable from the interface's front panel as well as via software (see below).
By now you should see where this is leading: you can set up all ten inputs to taste when feeding them to your DAW for recording, and have up to four separate mixes for monitoring outputs, all dialed to taste. This lets a full band have a complete monitor setup while recording together, all without messing with the signals being recorded in the DAW.
Nearly all of these functions can be controlled from the OCTA-CAPTURE's front panel, but there's also a very pretty and easy-to-learn Control Panel application included on the driver DVD, which gives a graphical overview of the Direct Mixers and all the Preamps, including compressor settings (see the screenshots). Since you're going to be using the OCTA-CAPTURE on a computer anyway, the vast majority of users will simply keep the Control Panel open and available, and do all their settings that way.
The OCTA-CAPTURE also comes with Cakewalk SONAR LE for Windows (Mac users are directed to GarageBand), as well as three high-quality sampled instruments that run on Windows and Mac OS X.
Notes from the studio
I replaced my standard computer interface in my test studio with the OCTA-CAPTURE for several weeks, and found it a seamless and pleasant replacement with no headaches or hassles. It quickly became obvious that this is not a solo tweaker's interface unless he or she likes to have a whole lot of instruments set up at once; it's really been fine-tuned for the needs of a recording band, letting them set up to record together while providing flexible monitoring options. A guitarist, bassist, vocalist, drummer (with a simply-miked kit) and keyboardist (perhaps taking advantage of the S/PDIF input) can quickly go from a rehearsal or stage performance setup to a finished DAW recording with just a few patch cables. The learning curve is short and the results are great-sounding.
The OCTA-CAPTURE runs at resolutions up to 24 bits and sample rates up to 192 kHz. Note that all the features described above are available only up to 24/96; if you go to 192, the interface allows only four inputs, four outputs, and one Direct Mixer with no reverb. You can network two OCTA-CAPTUREs to create a 20 x 20 setup, and the software is designed to let you switch between two units; I didn't get to test this capability.
In a recording setup like the ones the OCTA-CAPTURE is designed for, you're not looking for surprises, because usually they're bad ones. If musicians, especially beginning musicians, are skittish about the recording process, they won't play their best; being able to quickly set up a good-sounding monitor layout, capture everyone at once, and take care of problems like uneven playing levels before you ever get to your computer, makes the process of capturing a band performance much less scary and much more fun, and the music improves as a result.
The OCTA-CAPTURE does its job with grace, and I can recommend it heartily for bands looking for a portable way to get their music onto a computer, whether in the rehearsal room, home studio, or club.
More from: Roland, www.rolandus.com.